John Boehner’s Selfish Gambit May Send Us Over the Fiscal Cliff

Michael Tomasky on the consequences of John Boehner’s quest to keep his job.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

On Thursday, John Boehner will lead the House Republicans, or enough of them anyway, toward passage of his Plan B bill that will keep tax rates at current levels on all dollars earned up to $1 million. This means that House Republicans, or enough of them anyway, will be supporting a tax increase, no matter what they want to call it—an amusing grace note to which we’ll return. But the main point is that with this vote, Boehner, unless he’s doing something very different behind the scenes, is effectively ending fiscal cliff negotiations. His terse and unyielding remarks to the press Wednesday contrasted very poorly indeed with Obama’s plea for a soupçon of post-Newtown perspective and reason, and his gambit isn’t going to play well if we do go over the cliff. But it may save his job, which I suspect was really the point.

It hasn’t been mentioned much in all the fiscal cliff talk, but remember, not long after whatever fiscal votes the House takes, there will come a far more important one as far as Boehner is concerned: the vote for speaker of the 113th Congress. That will happen on Jan. 3. It’s hardly a secret that his restive caucus tilts well to his right, and it’s also widely known that a lot of them would in their hearts prefer to hear Eric Cantor’s voice on the other end of the phone, or possibly Kevin McCarthy’s, when they phone the speaker’s office. Cantor’s Cassius-like designs on the office have been likewise well noted.

At the beginning of the week, Boehner was talking like a fellow who wanted to cut a deal. His offer from last Friday put real revenue on the table for the first time and kicked any debt-limit fights down the road for one year. Obama responded with a concession on Social Security. They were dancing, at least. The establishment press, and the establishment for and to whom they speak, were all getting very excited.

But it would appear that the House Republican caucus wasn’t all that impressed with Boehner’s dance moves. Plan B is a huge step backward, a retreat away from negotiation and onto the safe but counterproductive territory of the ultimatum. After the House passes Plan B, he said Wednesday, “Then the president will have a decision to make. He can call on the Senate Democrats to pass that bill, or he can be responsible for the largest tax increase in American history.”

He knows that the Senate isn’t going to pass the bill, and he knows Obama won’t sign it. If this is where the Republicans stop the dance, then it’s obviously going to be the case that he’ll be right in a sense come Jan. 1, when there is no deal and marginal tax rates from bottom to top revert back to the higher Clinton-era rates.

But is he right that Obama is going to be seen by the American people as being “responsible” for that? Well, let’s take stock. Obama wanted tax increases on dollars earned above $250,000. Around 60 percent of the American people supported this view in poll after poll. Obama won the election campaigning on this position and won it handily.

On top of that, he then came around and proposed cuts to Social Security, indexing benefits to the “chained” consumer price index, to the vast consternation of his base and (undoubtedly) Nancy Pelosi. On top of that, he retreated on the debt limit from a position of taking it off the table forever to taking it off the table for two years. That’s a pretty big difference, forever to two years. On top of that, Obama made a totally ingenuous and common-sense appeal for a little reason and reciprocity in his remarks yesterday about how the events of the past week “should just give us some perspective” on fights that, by Monday afternoon, were really only about a few hundred billion dollars.

Now I ask you: The speaker who leads an unpopular Congress and is a member of an unpopular party, and is drawing an ideological, take-it-or-leave-it line in the sand, is going to win that P.R. war against a president who is back north of 50 percent and who’s acting like the voice of sweet reason?

It’s the same old story: Boehner pushed too far, and the right flank rose up. True, he didn’t completely fold. He is apparently getting them to vote for a tax increase above $1 million. They can say it isn’t an increase. Grover Norquist said it wasn’t and gave Plan B his blessing. But the fact is that they are increasing taxes, which 26 other conservative groups have acknowledged. It’s funny: one Democratic source of mine close to all this thinks that originally, Boehner was pushing Plan B as a kind of a test to see how many Republicans would vote for a small tax hike as a way of getting them used to the idea. Then he would try to persuade them, once they saw the sky didn’t fall in, to vote for a hike at a level he and Obama could agree to, like $400,000. It was a way of boxing in Norquist, or trying to.

But that was when Boehner was negotiating. Now that he’s apparently not, it’s just a decoy. He’s walking away. It may save his speakership, but it’s going to harm his party, to say nothing of the country. The American people are unlikely to be confused on these points.